When I was about 19, despite having taught Sunday school for three years, I delared myself an atheist. Or perhaps it was because of Sunday school. What had happened to the formerly ‘devout Christian’ me?
My aunt, who at 92 is as religious as ever and reads the bible a lot, accused me at the time of choosing “the easy way”. For some reason that phrase still burns in my soul. For all these decades, it has never been easy. It is not easy going against the majority. It’s not easy having no re-assuring beliefs to lean on as we go through life’s traumas and other learning experiences. And it’s not easy having no simple explanations for the insanity of wars, climate change, and other scary things. Easy? More like chronic high anxiety with no relief.
When you don’t have a mysterious, powerful, invisible being – or ‘miracles’ – to believe in, it’s up to you to search long and hard for answers, insights, and hopefully some wisdom. It takes strength and determination to work our way through the mysteries and contradictions of life.
‘Coming out’ as an atheist in those days was somewhat comparable to coming out as a gay person today in some parts of the world. In fact here in Toronto, I suspect today it has become easier to admit to being gay than to a lack of religious belief. Atheism is the current pariah – one of the scapegoats for extremists to trot out as “the problem”. There are many false beliefs about atheism of course, just as there are false beliefs about any category of humans.
Throughout my life, I’ve generally lived by the Christian values* I learned while growing up, through both family and church: compassion, honesty (with minor deviations!), and generosity. But my drift away from churches began with my young, idealistic frustration at the hypocrisy of my fellow Christians. I used to say bitterly, “they love the poor, but don’t want them to sit at the same table”. The ‘properly dressed’ people I saw at church every Sunday, viewed the scruffier poor with disdain. They seemed more interested in appearances than deeper issues. Of course most “gave” when the collection plate was circulated each week.
For me, being a Christian meant being responsible for finding solutions to serious problems like poverty and war. It meant acts like helping refugees, and accepting differences without judging. It meant trying to understand difficult issues. It meant living a ‘deep and meaningful’ life – acknowledging its complexity.
But to this day, I find “religious” people (of all religions) less likely than atheists to show compassion for homeless people, for example, and more inclined to believe that “they chose that life, why should I pay for it?” Atheists I’ve known are more likely to search for actual cause-and-effect explanations, more likely for example, to see alcoholism as a disease, not a moral issue.
It’s hard to escape the fact that many right-wing Christians interpret the teachings of Jesus to mean it’s just fine to get rich. Or that homeless alcoholics are just living the consequences of their choices. Or that my willingness to ‘share the wealth’ or want higher taxes for the rich, can provoke accusations of “communist”. It’s hard to escape the sad influence of religious extremists on scientific endeavours like stem-cell research, or the frequently anti-science perspective! For me, these attitudes have always seemed an illogical “believer’s” orientation. I remember an occasion when, as peace activists, a group of us were asked what we might contribute to a certain event; one commented, “I will pray”. At the time I felt a cynical disgust. Now I hope I’d be more understanding and less judgmental.
For many decades, I felt so threatened by, and anxious around, Christians that I tended to avoid them. But I no longer see people in such stark terms. I’ve been relieved to discover there really are ‘thinking Christians’, who do act on their beliefs, who do actually try to make the world a better place in whatever way they can. And of course it makes sense that many would be living out those same values I live by.
But for decades, I was truly afraid of ‘believers’. In my mind, I had come to associate them with terrible things – quite apart from a general gullibility – like the horrible levels of racism before and during the civil rights movement; like the “Jonestown massacre”, survivalism, cults, etc. For me they were anti-feminist, anti-choice, right-wing extremists, more likely to vote small-‘c’ conservative wherever they were. That in turn meant supporting the military-industrial complex, deficit economics, the death penalty, etc. and could conceivably ignite a global nuclear war based on belief in “The Rapture”. With all this in my head, it’s easy to see why I had developed such fear.
With Christians – or Muslims, “schizophrenics”, golfers – any group of people with a label, if we don’t live among them or socialize with them, we tend to evolve our sense of what they’re like from the media – often sensational reports – or worse, hearsay. As I tentatively include more believers in my life, my fear is diminishing, my respect increasing. Who knows – perhaps someday I’ll even find a safe, soft spot in my heart for them. Meanwhile, I’m trying hard to keep an open mind as we approach the U.S. presidential election in November.
* From what I have seen, the most important values are shared among all the major religions.